A bittersweet celebration
Ahavath Israel, in midst of a merger, marks its centennial
When the remaining members of Ahavath Israel Congregation in Ewing gathered to celebrate the congregation’s 100th anniversary, it was a bittersweet occasion.
Current and past members and religious leaders shared fond memories of an institution founded in 1909 on Centre Street in Trenton by Central European Jews unhappy with the unfamiliar traditions of the established Eastern European synagogues. It moved to Ewing on Lower Ferry Road in the mid-1960s.
However, as membership dwindled, members took what for them was the painful step of merging with Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville. The merger was approved at a March 17 meeting of both congregations.
Rick and Mary Lou Byer have both served as president of Ahavath Israel and cochaired the 100th anniversary celebration on Dec. 26.
“For any organization, secular or religious, to reach a milestone of 100 years is fantastic,” said Rick, who was synagogue treasurer at the time of the merger. “Our very small congregation has worked very hard over the last 10 years to make sure this anniversary would take place. It was our duty to the founders and their families and friends.”
Mary Lou, who was secretary at the time of the merger, said the couple joined in 1973 and have found the shul’s name — “the Love of Israel” — fitting.
“The love we have had for Ahavath Israel as a congregation has been very special,” she said. “From the time we joined we have felt a very special bond with the other members, who can only be thought of as family.
“We look forward,” she added, “to building new friendships and continuing to celebrate our traditions with our family at Adath Israel.”
It was in September 1909 that about 20 Jews met in the Trenton home of Henry Wirschafter, a prominent department store owner, to lay the groundwork for a new synagogue. On Dec. 23, the Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Israel was granted a charter by the state.
Because many of the new shul’s congregants preferred to speak German or Hungarian rather than Yiddish, it became known as the “Hungarian shul,” and in its early years even accepted dues in Austrian currency.
During the next few months, organizational meetings were held in Rudner Hall on South Clinton Avenue. Turner Hall on South Broad Street was rented in 1910 and 1911 for the High Holy Days and Passover. A regular minyan patterned after Trenton’s two existing Orthodox synagogues was held in the home of its first religious leader, Rev. Max Gordon.
The congregation purchased the Wesley Methodist Church at 439 Centre St. on May 1, 1911, for $12,000. One of the strengths of the young congregation was its sisterhood, then known as the Austrian-Hungarian Hebrew Ladies Society. Members collected funds for Jewish relief in World War I and received widespread praise for their endorsement of the Jewish Community Center in 1916.
A burial society was organized in 1914 and a burial ground was purchased in Hamilton Township in 1917 for $250. In the 1960s and 1970s two additional nearby burial sites were purchased.
The congregation’s religious school was forced to close during the Depression, but was reactivated in 1948 and had operated ever since.
In 1915, Ahavath Israel became the first of Trenton’s Orthodox synagogues to become Conservative and the first to hire an English-speaking rabbi.
Members began to leave south Trenton’s neighborhood for the suburbs after World War II and the synagogue decided to follow them, purchasing its Ewing site, dedicated June 27, 1965.
In the 1970s and ’80s, families who had followed Ahavath Israel were themselves moving to more distant suburbs. However, the 1980s saw an influx of new members from Hopewell, Hamilton, and Yardley, Pa.
But since 2000, membership had shrunk as members and even the neighboring Jewish Community Center moved. It continued to offer holiday programming and adult education classes, but it was no longer possible to economically sustain the congregation.
“My uncle, Philip Milbach, was one of the original founders when it was on Centre Street,” said vice president Frances Laskey. “I know he would have been very proud that we did everything in our power to reach this milestone, and we are moving forward to a wonderful new venture.”